Santa Cruz, California, isn't the type of community that one would expect to be struggling with gang-related violence. A small city on the Pacific coast, Santa Cruz draws tourists from all over Northern California to its beaches and boardwalk amusement park. The city also attracts students from around the state to attend the University of California at Santa Cruz. Once a slow-paced fishing town, Santa Cruz is now a center for radical politics and the arts and abounds with organic food stores, theaters, funky coffeehouses and restaurants, and alternative bookstores.
But like many small cities in California, Santa Cruz is a place of drastic contrasts and wild contradictions. Unseen by most of the visitors-yet literally adjacent to the popular beach boardwalk-there exists a section of this small town that faces the big problems of the inner city: low-income housing projects with teen-age heroin addicts, youth who are at risk from gang-related violence, and families who struggle to put enough food on the table for their children. For many of the predominantly white residents and students in Santa Cruz, the life-la vida loca-of the barrios is a distant reality that they read about in the newspapers or see on television more often than face to face.
Gangs in Santa Cruz County, which are made up almost exclusively of Latino youth, exist in a complex network of ever-changing alliances, subsets, and crews, each loosely connected with California's two major Latino gang alliances, Norteño and Sureño (Northern and Southern). The Norteño alliance, which identifies itself with the color red, is associated with the Nuestra Familia gang that started in 1965 in Soledad penitentiary. The Sureño alliance, which is connected to the Mexican Mafia, a gang that began in a California prison in 1958, claims the color blue. Sureños generally consider themselves to be Mexican nationals and usually speak Spanish.